Word Magazine February 1966 Page 8-9

The National Broadcasting Company presents FAITH IN ACTION, a program designed to bring the viewpoints of those of many beliefs. In the first two programs concerned with Eastern Orthodoxy, the Very Reverend Alexander Schmemann, Dean of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, New York, and author of “The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy,” delivered the following talk:


The Western Man, and in partic­ular the Western Christian, doesn’t know much about the world of East­ern Orthodoxy, that is, the Eastern Orthodox Church.

The final separation between the East and West took place in the 11th century, in 1054; and since then the Western history was so rich in events, so complex and tragical, that not many people in the West kept the memory of the great Eastern Church which at the same time was going through its very dark period.

Therefore, it’s good if we begin by certain historical facts, by a general historical presentation.

It is certainly not an accident that the world into which the Church en­tered after it left its Jewish childhood in Palestine was called the Greek-Roman world; not only Greek, not only Roman, but Greek-Roman. It was a world in which that synthesis between the Latin West and the Greek East was already accomp­lished within one culture, which we call usually Hellenistic culture. It is within this world that Christianity developed at first when it had its formative age. And there can be no doubt—I think all historians will agree—that in this formative age it was the Eastern part of the Christian world, usually known as the Byzan­tine world, that had the leading role. It was in the East that Christianity took its historical form, acquired its shape, its canon, as a theologian would say.

And I think the best way to pre­sent this canon or shape of historical Christianity is to mention the three main dimensions of the Byzantine Eastern Orthodox Church.

It begins, certainly, with the con­version of the Emperor Constantine in 312, the Roman Emperor who, at the famous battle at Ponte Milveo near Rome, became a Christian. From that moment on, the historical home of the Church was the Roman Empire as it developed primarily in the West when Constantine trans­ferred the capital city of the empire from Rome, first to the city of Nicomedia, and then later on to the new­ly founded capital of Constantinople.

Constantinople is the center of that Byzantine world, and it was around Constantinople, in Asia Minor, in Syria and in Egypt that those dimen­sions of Eastern Orthodoxy, which still are shaping and forming it, de­veloped. The first of these dimen­sions we may call the intellectual.

Eastern Orthodoxy means that the dogma, the doctrinal, the intellectual content of religion is given a very im­portant priority. This theological con­tent was developed not in academic work, but in a series of great theo­logical disputes, controversies, in which basically what happened was the interpretation or the formulation of the content of Christian faith in terms of Greek philosophy. This is the real achievement, the first great intellectual achievement of Eastern Orthodoxy: the kerygma, or sermon, the proclamation of the Gospel given its intellectual consistency with­in the terminology of Greek mind and Greek thought.

This resulted in those great dog­mas of Trinity, Christology, the per­son of Christ, His Divinity, His Hu­manity, the Holy Spirit, the Mother of God, and even a doctrine known as the Doctrine of Icons.

Eastern Orthodoxy historically is primarily a body of doctrine which formulates a certain vision of God, man, history, time, et cetera.

But this intellectual vision—I am now coming to the second dimension—-found its true expression in an ar­tistic language, primarily the lan­guage of architecture, worship, and liturgy.

Iconography also should be men­tioned here. It was within this great Byzantine Rite, or Byzantine Liturgy, that Orthodoxy found its real heart. And even if today it’s still called the Liturgical Church par excellence, it’s not only because our worship has presented certain colorful archaic forms attractive to Western man, but because it is in worship, in the Doxo­logy, in the glorification of God, that an Orthodox finds the real center, the heart of his religious life.

Now, St. Sophia in Constantinople, the pattern, the prototype of all Or­thodox Churches, is more than the place where people worship. It is in itself a vision of the new creation. The great dome covers not only the Church but potentially the whole world. St. Sophia exemplifies the great mysterion, the mystery of the Liturgy in its rich symbolism, and that great hymnography which is be­ing sung in church. All this is not only an art of prayer; it is a mani­festation, the revelation, the com­munication of that ultimate reality which, according to Eastern Ortho­doxy, has been revealed to us, com­municated to us in Christ and by Christ—the reality which, according to another Orthodox saying, makes the life of the Christian the heaven­ly life on earth.

This is the second dimension of historical Byzantinism.

And then finally the third dimen­sion, after the intellectual and the liturgical, is that great world of spir­ituality which developed primarily in the monastic movement. It was in the fourth century after the Ro­man Empire became Christian that thousands and thousands of men left, if I can say so, the world and went into the desert in order not to betray, not to give up this ideal of absolute perfection which comes from the Gospel—to be perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect.

Now, this monasticism which de­veloped in Egypt with St. Anthony and St. Pacomios, then in Palestine, finally in Asia Minor with St. Basil of Cicarene Cappadocia, was not only one of the possible ways of Christian life according to the Orthodox un­derstanding of it, but it was first of all a sort of laboratory where this whole ideal of human existence as communion with God, as appropria­tion of the grace and slow transfiguration of man, were put into prac­tice.

Now this great monastic or spiritual tradition, therefore, became the real doctrine of man in Eastern Or­thodoxy. And this doctrine of man is centered primarily on the idea of mans’ transformation or transfigura­tion. He is to become the temple of the Holy Spirit. He is to anticipate eternal life in his life here in this world.

Now, the doctrine of that spirit­uality has been codified more or less in the body of writings known as the Philokalia, the great spiritual writ­ings of the Fathers, the Fathers of the desert, or some of the great teach­ers of Latin Byzantium.

Thus, we have in Byzantium the foundation of the Eastern Orthodox world. Today there are many Ortho­dox Churches, many national Ortho­dox Churches. But they are still a part of this Byzantine synthesis, en­compassing a body of doctrine, the dogma of the Church, the doctrine of the seven ecumenical councils and of the Greek Fathers, the Liturgy of the Byzantine Rite, the Liturgy con­nected with the names of John Chrysostom and Basil the Great. And it is finally the ideal of life that comes to us from men like Isaac of Syria, or Maximus the Confessor, that con­stitutes still the main inspiration of life.

This is what all Orthodox Churches and what all Orthodox people have in common, their foun­dation, the source, the Byzantine pat­tern of Orthodoxy.

Now, all this lasted for many cen­turies, and yet ended in an historical catastrophe.

In 1453 Constantinople was taken by the Turks, and the Byzantine Em­pire came to an end. Within the next hundred years all independent Or­thodox Churches in Syria, in Egypt, and elsewhere, were under the cloak of Islam, and this brilliant millennium came to an end.

However, this was not the end of Eastern Orthodox history. It contin­ued. Byzantium as an historical real­ity came to an end. Byzantium as a spiritual reality gave birth to many new developments, and those devel­opments will later on lead us to the 20th century and to cities like New York, Chicago, or San Francisco.

Therefore, in the end of one his­torical era, the beginning of the dark age of Orthodoxy in fact provoked new developments, new beginnings, and these involve, first of all, the geographical expansion of Ortho­doxy, the Byzantine mission. There is the birth, for example, of the great Slavic Christianity, Russian Christi­anity, et cetera.

Second, there was a new encoun­ter with the West. First, a negative one during the Holy Wars of all kinds which unfortunately provoked a world of great misunderstanding.

And finally came the influence, the progress, the growth of modern Orth­odoxy, the Orthodoxy of the Dia­spora: the presence of the Orthodox Churches today virtually in every land, in every geographical area of the world.

Thus, summing up, we can say that what began in the Greco-Ro­man world, what followed its first fullness, its first expression in the world of Byzantium, then went into a sort of dark age, but continues to­day in new forms and with the same loyalty to its foundation.


1453 marks a tragical date in the history of the Eastern Orthodox Church. In that year the city of Con­stantinople, which for more than a thousand years was the center of the Byzantine Orthodox culture, was taken by the Turks and for many centuries after that the whole East­ern world, the world of Eastern Or­thodoxy, rather, which included the flourishing provinces of Asia Minor, Syria and Egypt, ceased to be in the hands of Orthodox rulers.

And yet, it did not stop the growth and the progress of Orthodoxy.

On the one hand, of course, these centuries between the 15th and the 20th were centuries of a great trag­edy. Orthodoxy survived, but survived in the climate of constant per­secution, A Patriarch of Constantin­ople died a martyr in the year 1821, killed in his own Patriarchate. And even today what we hear from the See of Orthodox Primacy of Con­stantinople in Istanbul is always a source of tragedy for all Orthodox hearts in the world.

But, as I said, if this great Byzan­tine world entered its dark age it gave birth prior to this historical tragedy to new Orthodox Churches. And the first one to be mentioned here in this very glorious missionary development is the birth of the great Slavic Orthodox world.

In the 9th century two Greek brothers by the name of Cyril and Methodius were sent from Constant­inople to the Western Slavs, and there translated the whole body of Scripture, Liturgy, and doctrine into the Slavic language.

Their own mission ended rather tragically. They were both expelled from what is today Czechoslovakia, and Latinism triumphed there. But in the translations the whole spirit of that Byzantine mission was picked up, if one can say so, by the other Slavic countries, first by Bulgaria, then by Serbia, and last but not least, at the end of the 10th century, by the young kingdom of Russia, centered in Kiev. And thus began a new chapter in the history of Eastern Orthodoxy which gave not only to the Orthodox world, but one can say to universal culture, great treas­ures of thought, holiness, and in gen­eral, various great examples of what Christian culture is.

At the end of the 10th century the Prince of Kiev, Vladimir, invited bishops and priests from Constantin­ople and baptized his whole people in the river Dnieper.

From this Christian beginning there developed the great Church of Russia which, in the 19th century, primarily because it was at that time practically the only free Church in a free Orthodox country, gave to the world great theologians, great writ­ers. The names of Dostoyevsky, and closer to us the names like that of Pasternak, for example, whose Doc­tor Zhivago, which created so much interest a few years ago, showed the depth and the quality and the mes­sage of that Orthodox Christian lit­erature of Russia.

If one adds to this the names of many saints produced by the Slavic world again one name may be mentioned here, that of St. Serafim of Zarov, who was canonized only at the beginning of this century, and who yet is a sort of flower grown on the soil of Orthodoxy, reflecting the deep joy of its Liturgy, its spiritual expectation of the kingdom. If one but mentions all this one can see that in 1453 the history of Orthodoxy did not come to an end.

In addition to the great Byzantine tradition, and inside this Byzantine tradition, new material traditions de­veloped. For it belonged to the na­ture of Orthodoxy to identify itself with the total life of the community in which it lives.

Even today Greeks or Russians do not call themselves Greek or Rus­sian, but simply Christian. And such is the degree of their identification with their faith. And so when one speaks of national Orthodox cultures one touches upon what maybe is the great particularity, the great unique­ness of Orthodoxy. It is this combi­nation of a tradition which is not na­tional in its essence, which is univer­sal dogma, Liturgy, spirituality, and at the same time its complete iden­tification with the soul of the people which it baptizes.

One can really speak as all Or­thodox nations spoke of the Holy Greece, the Holy Russia, the Holy Serbia, not meaning moral holiness — for we are quite aware of the many sins and shortcomings of those peo­ples, individual and social — but of the ideal of national existence. And the ideal of national existence is rooted in the Church, which is not only an agency for prayer or for re­ligious action, but which becomes in a very real sense the central, the pshi, the soul of the nation to which it be­longs. Now such was the develop­ment of Orthodoxy after the fall of Constantinople.

Little by little the nations which were under Islam were liberated. At the beginning of the 19th century came freedom for Greece. It became a free Orthodox country. Then Bulgaria, then Serbia, then Romania became free.

Then another set of tragedies be­gan. Today a great part of the Or­thodox world is again behind the Iron Curtain, and if one limits the analysis of that situation only to So­viet Russia, one can see again how in some 48 years of Soviet atheistic domination in Russia, the great mon­opoly of the state father could not bring to an end the Church’s exist­ence. The Church reacted, first by thousands of martyrs, of people who went to concentration camps, and then, little by little, by attracting to itself people who could not be poi­soned by the atheistic propaganda or by ideologies alien to the Orthodox world.

So all this is the history of achieve­ments and also of tragedies.

But the last thing which must be mentioned in this very brief histori­cal analysis of Eastern Orthodoxy is the new phenomenon, the expansion of Orthodoxy beyond the Christian East.

I began by comparing the Chris­tian East to the Christian West. Or­thodoxy is the Eastern form of Chris­tianity, though it has always claimed to have preserved the fullness of faith, to be the true Church, not to be just a geographical expression of Christianity. In fact, its history was an Eastern history.

Yet the tragedy which I mentioned resulted in a great geographical ex­pansion of Orthodoxy: the Greeks expelled from Turkey in the twenties of this century, the Russian refugees, people who were leaving the various non-Orthodox countries of Central Europe.

All these different sources fed what today is the great Orthodox Diaspora.

It is almost a strange feeling when driving through Los Angeles to see an Eastern Orthodox Church all of a sudden. This is the East coming to the West, and again without speak­ing of what happens in Australia or in South America, where there are Orthodox Churches. If one just limits it to the United States one should say that today Orthodoxy is here not only as a sort of Eastern ghetto, but very quickly develops into a real factor in the American religious and cultural scene.

There are some five to six million Eastern Orthodox in America. There are several thousand parishes in practically every area, and little by little a new generation of Orthodox born in this country, educated within the American culture, yet faithful to this whole Byzantine and Orthodox heritage, doctrine, Liturgy and spir­ituality, are making their entrance not only as refugees, not only as those who remember the past, but who want to make Orthodoxy a real part, if not the moving force, of their life and existence in the West.

We are living through this chapter now and therefore it doesn’t belong yet to history, but there can be no doubt that the critical moment is be­hind. This transition from what .American sociology knows as the immigrants’ Church to the native Church is on its way, and although of course it provokes many difficul­ties, many misunderstandings be­tween generations, between

various groups, et cetera, the last events, the creation of a Standing Conference of Orthodox Bishops uniting all the Orthodox traditions into one, the practical cooperation, the Pan-Orth­odox Schools and Seminaries: all of these things show that we are on our way, the way which before us the Lutherans and the Catholics knew to become not simply one of the American groups, but to make the presence of Orthodoxy felt in the shaping which never ends, the shap­ing of this great country.

Certainly there’s a great hope that this integration of Orthodoxy into America is something which will mean much, not only for Orthodoxy, for those Orthodox who are here, but for Orthodoxy universal, and al­so, one may hope, for the West it­self.